In his list of “Undeniable Truths,” published in 1988 by the Sacramento Union, Rush Limbaugh declared that “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society.”
It’s an ugly joke and an old one: Women only want rights if they’re unwanted by men. It’s also the foundational myth of the “feminazi,” Linbaugh’s stereotype of an argumentative woman who seeks to gain power by stealing it from “mainstream society.” In the “culture wars” that exploded on Limbaugh’s talk radio show in the late 1980s, this form of conservative humor morphed into serious ideology: “mainstream society,” that culture created for and by white men, must be protected from invading women at all costs.
Defending conservative ideas by reducing women to crude, dehumanizing terms—a method popularized by AM radio and Limbaugh’s cruel form of humor, in particular–was recently on full display when Congressman Ted Yoho called his colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking bitch” on the steps of Capitol Hill. Ocasio-Cortez had said that “crime is a problem of a diseased society, which neglects its marginalized people” in response to questions about spikes in crime amid coronavirus restrictions in New York City, a line of thinking that apparently set Yoho loose.
In another political era, the explicit language, if not the sentiment behind it, might have made at least a few politicians pay lip service to the idea of Yoho’s resignation, while pundits predicted the fallout and the news cycle paused for a considerable moment of outrage. But in 2020, four years after a resurfaced audio recording featured a presidential candidate boasting about forcibly grabbing women by the genitals and he still won the presidential election, “fucking bitch” is just par for the political course.
Yoho never apologized for his insults, instead apologizing for his passion, born of loving “my God, my family, and my country.” Though publicly calling a woman a fucking bitch would seem to be at odds with values rooted in the idea of America as a wholesome, sepia-toned Camelot, from the vantage point of a subset of conservative white men, violent language is the key weapon in the fight against “feminazis” lying in wait, itching to relocate America culture to the “marginalized people” Ocasio-Cortez mentioned.
To understand how a self-proclaimed Christian who touts traditional American values might believe God wanted him to curse out a woman at work, it’s worth looking at the history of AM talk radio and the rise of the culture wars, first mocked and then championed by talking heads like Rush Limbaugh. It all begins with the evolution of a different slur: the “feminazi.”
“Feminazi” was first introduced to a wide audience in Limbaugh’s 1992 book The Way Things Ought to Be. Though Limbaugh credited his “good friend” and economics professor Tom Hazlett with coining the term, Limbaugh popularized it. Feminazis were “the most obnoxious feminists...who are obsessed with perpetuating a modern-day holocaust: abortion,” he wrote. And though the word was flexible enough to encompass all feminists—or simply a woman who doesn’t like sexist jokes—in the beginning, feminazis were framed as the small subset of women battling on the front lines for women’s liberation, which, according to Limbaugh, meant rendering men obsolete through abortion access. “Abortion is the single greatest avenue for militant women to exercise their quest for power and advance their belief that men aren’t necessary,” Limbaugh wrote.
By framing feminazis as vigilantes out to wrestle power from white men, Limbaugh hit upon a tender spot in his mostly white, mostly male audience. For so long they had been virtually the only voices that counted in America, and he tapped into a growing sense that they no longer seemed to matter as much. With the erosion of their supremacy, they feared the loss of American culture they recognized.
Rush Limbaugh sums up this sense of persecution best in a quote from one of his shows, as printed in The Atlantic: “We cannot deny that all around us the institutions and traditions which used to provide the guardrails for our culture and society have been corrupted, and those guardrails aren’t there anymore. They were torn down, actually, a long time ago.”
But the irony is, talk radio and Limbaugh himself worked hardest to erode any pretense of decency. Donald Trump’s now-ubiquitous quotes to Billy Bush about grabbing women by the pussy, dismissed as “locker room talk” by the conservative, evangelical Christian base who elected him president are born from Limbaugh’s rhetoric–his portrayals of feminazis as ugly, undesirable lesbians and his running joke that he supports the women’s movement “from behind.”
In an earlier era, Trump’s quote would have been a death knell for a political candidate. In the 1990 Texas governor’s race, Democrat Ann Richards was an underdog until her opponent, Republican oilman Clayton Williams, told the press he believed sexual assault might be a fun experience if uptight women could just calm down. “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it,” he told reporters around a campfire at his ranch, effectively losing himself the election by repeating a sentiment that might have been met with appreciative laughs on the Rush Limbaugh show. According to Brian Rosenwald, media historian and author of Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States these ideas were actually echoed in an early Limbaugh sketch called “Gulf War I”: “It was a pre-credit sequence,” Rosenwald told Jezebel, “It’s basically a guy in bedouin Iraq in the 1940s raping his wife where shes saying stop and he’s doing it anyway, and she’s saying at least put this on and it’s a condom that says “provided by New York City schools.”
Limbaugh and Williams certainly weren’t the only men in the late ’80s and early ’90s wishing women would just pipe down. The same year Limbaugh published The Way Things Ought to Be, evangelical leader Pat Robertson echoed its sentiments in a fund-raising letter. “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians,” he wrote.
Not to give these men too much credit. Limbaugh and his ilk weren’t rhetorical masterminds who could foretell how profitable the backlash to the women’s movement would be. Their messages were easy dog whistles indicating a safe space for men who missed the overt racism and sexism they’d grown up with. The idea of feminazis, as a sinister, darkly magical military was an effective way to both delegitimize the causes of women seeking bodily autonomy and equal rights at work and distance them from the “regular” women who wanted motherhood and heterosexual marriages.
According to “I’m Not a Feminist But: How Feminism Became the F Word,” a 2006 academic paper by Duke University professor Toril Moi, the popularity of feminist-bashing on conservative talk radio by evangelical leaders was a critical part of dismantling the gains women had spent much of the 20th century working toward by reducing the architects of those gains into three key stereotypes:
“However objectionable they may be, Robertson’s and Limbaugh’s vociferous rantings outline three fundamental ideas about feminism that have become virtually commonplace across the political spectrum today,” Buschman and Lenart wrote. “(1) feminists hate men and consider all women innocent victims of evil male power; (2) feminists are particularly dogmatic, inflexible, intolerant, and incapable of questioning their own assumptions; and (3) since every sensible person is in favor of equality and justice for women, feminists are a bunch of fanatics, a lunatic fringe, an extremist, power-hungry minority.”
That the cruel caricatures championed in jest would eventually calcify into common stereotypes seems obvious. But in the beginning, at least, most of what Limbaugh said was supposed to be fun; “militant women” no more of a threat to men than a dog in a business suit walking on its hind legs. Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, which became nationally syndicated in 1988, first gained popularity among an audience of mostly white American men who felt like they could no longer tell these kinds of jokes without pissing off their bosses, co-workers, wives, and children:
“For listeners, it felt like the rules of the game had changed,” Rosenwald told Jezebel. “A joke that they might have told ten years earlier, now they said it and their kids are like, “You’re racist” or “You’re sexist, you can’t say that. Rush comes along and everything they had been told they couldn’t do or say, he did and said.”
Rosenwald, who listened to decades of Limbaugh’s show as research for his book, says that early on, Limbaugh resembled The Daily Show more than the newscast-inspired Fox News format it eventually became. In the beginning, his shows were comprised of sketches, parodies, and theme music. Limbaugh himself maintained that his brand of entertainment filled a niche that was sorely missing in a landscape of humorless liberals. Once, when asked if he could have been just as successful as a Democrat, Limbaugh replied that would have been impossible, “for the simple reason that liberals don’t laugh about things. I have a sense of humor.” Anyone who couldn’t see the harmlessness of his humor was probably just a fun-hating feminazi.
Limbaugh’s idea that liberals were incapable of cruel humor was, of course, incorrect. In 1992, the same year that Limbaugh pretended to confuse Chelsea Clinton with the family dog, Saturday Night Live joined in on the mockery by having Wayne and Garth declare her “not a babe” and featured a sketch in which Madonna dressed as Marilyn Monroe made a pass at Julia Sweeney dressed as 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton, which the child seemed to welcome. While Limbaugh never apologized for criticizing a child’s physical attractiveness, Mike Meyers did send a letter of apology to the Clinton family after SNL removed the comments from the air. Still, it was an indicator that the idea of feminists–or the daughters of feminists in Chelsea’s case–as unattractive lesbians had become a mainstream stereotype.
While there was outrage around talk radios’ derisive treatment of women and criticism of SNL’s mockery of Chelsea Clinton in particular, there were concessions. Feminists and former feminists, worried that using “the F word” would open them to ridicule and have their ideas dismissed as feminazism.
Fear of being labeled humorless feminazis infiltrated even academic feminist discourse as talk radio conservatism gained momentum. Buschman and Lenart point to a newfound apologia in (white) feminist texts of the 1990s, from Katie Roiphe’s 1994 book The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism wherein Roiphe declared “women are not beyond reproach simply because they are women” to Susan Faludi, who wrote in 1999 “Blaming a cabal of men has taken feminism about as far as it can go.” The fear of being lumped in with “man-hating” feminists seemed to drive even feminist theory during the time, to the point where Bauschaman and Lenart worried that, when the aughts rolled around, “the very word feminism [had] become toxic in large parts of American culture.”
But if some ’90s feminists seemed to imply that women were ready to lighten up and “take a joke,” AM talk radio only got more serious about its opposition. The playing field became crowded with doomsday prophets like Mark Levin, “reformed liberals” like Michael Savage, and buttoned-down corporate conservative shills like Fox’s Sean Hannity. Hosts, desperate for attention and ad revenue, ramped unrest around the culture wars, moving from outrage as entertainment to outrage as political action, making heroes of fringe politicians, like Yoho, who would have been shunned in a different era:
“The more competition there is, the more there’s a push to be more extreme,” Rosenwald told Jezebel, “What these shows have done is created a space for the extremist congressman, like the guy who goes off on AOC, where they can buck leadership. The heroes of talk radio and right-wing news are increasingly these far-right congressmen and senators, the people who are bucking leadership who are like we don’t care if the government shuts down, we’re going to stick to principles.”
Defining these principles often seemed like a competition to see how regressive extremist ideas could be. In 2012, Todd Akin infamously claimed that a “legitimate rape” couldn’t result in a pregnancy, rendering legal abortion unnecessary, Rush Limbaugh declared that Sandra Fluke’s advocacy for health insurance coverage of birth control was tantamount to prostitution. The prevalence of these right-wing attacks on women’s bodies mobilized conservatives to support candidates who might have been considered “fringe” just a few years earlier, but it also reignited interest in feminism, with celebrities from Beyonce to Aziz Ansari publicly labeling themselves feminists.
As feminism no longer became a verboten affiliation, the culture wars reignited into an even nastier clash between those who agreed with Limbaugh’s original definition of feminazis and an increasingly vocal (and famous) subset who called bullshit. But while conservatives steadily gained a larger and larger portion of the news media and political power, there was still a sense of persecution over the perception of conservative viewpoints in public opinion:
“What is so fascinating about the perception of cultural conservatives is that they are a majority,” Rosenwald says. “Demographically, Christians are still a majority in America, overwhelmingly so. They’ve got hundreds of conservative talk radio stations where there’s nothing close to that on the left. But because they keep losing the culture wars they have a very keen sense of persecution”
Donald “Grab ‘Em By the Pussy” Trump probably would have been a great success as a talk radio host in the early ’90s, but three decades of foundational architecture, starting with the term feminazi, have helped cement him as a political candidate—a man willing to forcibly show Americans that white men still wield the power. Rather than costing him the election like it did Todd Akin and Clayton Williams, his comments were a boon. Evangelicals and conservative voters cheer as politicians “own the libs” by controlling women. What was once fringe entertainment is mainstream ideology. The idea of a feminist war on men is prevalent on Fox News; feminazis were a central focus in the manifesto by “men’s rights activist” and murderer Roy Den Hollander, who used the word 659 times in the 2,000-page document he left behind before killing the son of Judge Esther Salas, a woman he felt had wronged him by deciding against his suit to include women in the military draft.
After three decades of viewing liberal women as enemies across battle lines. It’s no wonder that Ted Yoho’s immediate response to Ocasio-Cortez was to slap the “fucking bitch” label on her, a tactic that both dismisses her as unreasonable and reduces her to a stereotype, just like the feminazi label so effectively did back in 1992. And the talk radio fans who now vote for the men whose ideas were shaped by Rush Limbaugh, the hero that gave them a safe space to tell racist and sexist jokes, can now see themselves through Trump and Yoho getting what they actually wanted all along—continued supremacy over women and the power to put fucking bitches in their place.